Human Rights Council holds interactive dialogue with the Commission of Inquiry on Syria,18 September 2017
Human Rights Council
18 September 2017
The Human Rights Council in its midday meeting held an interactive dialogue with the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria.
Paulo Sérgio Pinheiro, Chairperson of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria, said that civilians continued to be deliberately attacked, deprived of humanitarian aid and essential healthcare services, forcibly displaced, and arbitrarily detained or held hostage by all warring parties: pro-Government forces, anti-Government armed groups, and terrorist organizations and their affiliates. The Commission appealed to all parties conducting airstrikes in Syria to redouble their efforts to spare civilians from harm and refrain from striking hospitals, schools, and religious sites. Attempting to impose peace through military victories would generate only more violence if not now, then in the future.
Speaking as the concerned country, Syria noted that the Commission had based itself on testimony by unknown persons and adopted reports of suspicious parties, which made it unreliable and non-credible. Syria refused the accusations in the report and denounced the focus of the report on the sectarian aspect of the conflict, giving the impression there was a civil war in Syria. It found that the report was full of contradictions and double standards.
Delegations participating in the dialogue condemned the targeting of civilians and civilian infrastructure and the use of chemical weapons and asked the Commission of Inquiry to elaborate on how children in Syria had been affected by the lack of respect for international humanitarian law, including the denial of humanitarian access. Several speakers reiterated that the situation should be referred to the International Criminal Court; others noted that some States were undertaking criminal proceedings in their national courts on the basis of universal jurisdiction. A number of speakers said the report of the Commission was biased and selective, avoiding the mention of crimes committed by terrorist groups fighting against the Syrian Government. Faced with such flagrant hypocrisy, the Commission was working in the interest of its sponsors - States who were bent on changing the Government in power in Syria.
In concluding remarks, Mr. Pinheiro appealed to Member States who had witnesses or victims of crimes, to share information with the Commission on a confidential basis. Forcible displacement had been categorized as a war crime in the report. He thanked all the Member States for the expression of general support of the work of the Commission.
Carla del Ponte, member of the Commission of Inquiry, said that after more than five years of work, the Commission could still not obtain authorization from the Security Council to establish a tribunal for all the crimes committed in Syria. Today was the seventh year of crimes with total impunity. This was not acceptable. The international community needed to do something if justice was to be given to the victims. But in order to secure justice, the establishment of a tribunal was necessary.
Speaking in the interactive dialogue were Finland, speaking on behalf of the Nordic States, European Union, Liechtenstein, Kuwait, Poland, Israel, Germany, Russian Federation, United Arab Emirates, Canada, Brazil, Greece, France, Belgium, Chile, Switzerland, Venezuela, Netherlands, Japan, Maldives, Cuba, Australia, United States, Czech Republic, Iraq, Albania, Estonia, Qatar, Croatia, Spain, Egypt, Bahrain, Slovenia, Ecuador, Italy, Belarus, Austria, Morocco, China, Portugal, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, United Kingdom, Mexico, Luxembourg, Turkey, Botswana, Romania, Jordan, Hungary, Iran, Ireland, Lithuania, Algeria, Saudi Arabia and New Zealand.
The following non-governmental organizations also spoke: European Centre for Law and Justice, Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILF), Alliance Defending Freedom, Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, United Nations Watch, Human Rights Watch, Union of Arab Jurists, and Syrian Centre for Media and Freedom of Expression.
The Council will next hold an enhanced interactive dialogue on the situation of human rights in South Sudan.
The Council has before it the Report of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic (A/HRC/36/55).
Presentation of Report by the Commission of Inquiry on Syria
PAULO SERGIO PINHEIRO, Chair of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic, opened the debate by sharing the words of one of the many thousands of Syrians that the Commission had interviewed: “All of them were killed. That is better than us. My daughter died and we remained.” Within hours of his interview, this man had been killed. Since the beginning of its mandate, the Commission’s goal had been to give voice to the victims, to bear witness to their plight, and to document rigorously violations and abuses perpetrated against them. Presenting the latest report that detailed the violations of human rights law, international humanitarian law, and basic notions of human dignity across Syria since March, Mr. Pinheiro said civilians continued to be deliberately attacked, deprived of humanitarian aid and essential healthcare services, forcibly displaced, and arbitrarily detained or held hostage by all warring parties: pro-Government forces, anti-Government armed groups, terrorist organizations and their affiliates. By shedding light on these atrocities, the Commission hoped to advance the cause of justice for the victims.
The Commission had documented incidents perpetrated by the terrorist groups ISIL and HTS (led by former Jabhat al-Nusra command), and by armed group fighters. In several instances, Government forces used chemical weapons against civilians in opposition-held areas, including in Khan Shaykhun (Idlib) on 4 April. In accordance with well-established methodology, the Commission gathered extensive evidence, including dozens of interviews, photos of remnants and satellite imagery, and concluded that Syrian aircraft dropped a sarin bomb in Khan Shaykhun, killing over 80 individuals, mostly women and children, and injuring hundreds more. This attack had taken place during a Syrian and Russian aerial campaign in northern Hama and southern Idlib, which targeted medical facilities. As a result, these facilities could not provide adequate assistance to victims of sarin on 4 April.
The Commission had also found that United States forces failed to take all feasible precautions to protect civilians and civilian objects when attacking alleged terrorists and destroying part of a mosque complex in al-Jinah (Aleppo) on 16 March, resulting in an alarming loss of civilian life in a serious violation of international humanitarian law. The Commission would continue to investigate allegations about international coalition airstrikes carried out as part of the on-going offensive to repel ISIL from ar-Raqqah. The Commission was extremely concerned about the increasing numbers of civilian casualties as a result of these airstrikes, which had intensified significantly over the last few weeks. As SDF forces advanced to overtake the rest of ar-Raqqa city, concerns also arose over civilians who remain trapped in the city.
The Commission appealed to all parties – pro-Government and international coalition alike – conducting airstrikes in Syria to redouble their efforts to ensure they were taking all efforts to spare civilians from harm and refrain from striking hospitals, schools, and religious sites. Additionally, more efforts had to be made to assist the thousands of Yazidi women, girls and boys in Syria who were the focus of ISIL’s campaign of genocide. Mr. Pinheiro ended the presentation of the Commission’s report by calling upon the Member States to react, and quoting Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who had said: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Now was the time to address the critical needs of the Syrian people. It was time for the international community to focus squarely on the Syrian people, their rights, and their legitimate aspirations to a peaceful life. It was time for a political solution in which the voices and concerns of Syrians were brought forward, given resonance and primacy. It was their future at stake. Attempting to impose peace through military victories would generate only more violence if not now, then in the future.
Statement by the Concerned State
Syria, speaking as the concerned State, said the Commission had based itself on testimony by unknown persons and adopted reports of suspicious parties. That made it unreliable and non-credible. The Commission of Inquiry continued to ignore the responsibility of regimes which had financed terrorist groups. Syria had always warned against the consequences of a selective approach, and some countries’ exploitation of the Human Rights Council mechanisms. Syria refused the accusations in the report, including accusations of enforced displacement from areas of national reconciliation; only certain armed individuals had preferred to leave. United Nations reports reaffirmed that over 700,000 people had returned to their areas. Syria denounced the focus of the report on the sectarian aspect, giving the impression there was a civil war in Syria, and found that the report was full of contradictions and double standards. It did not call for the protection of civilians in Raqqa, nor did it ask for humanitarian corridors and truces. The Commission did not hesitate to manipulate the time frames so as not to hold the United States responsible for the use of white phosphorus, saying those events needed to be investigated. Syria had addressed an official letter to the President of the Council denying all those accusations. The use of such lies disrupted ongoing investigations.
Finland, speaking on behalf of the Nordic States, condemned the targeting of civilians and civilian infrastructure and the use of chemical weapons. There needed to be a lasting solution, which could only be achieved under the auspices of Security Council resolution 2254. The Commission was asked about their assessment of how children in Syria had been affected by the lack of respect for international humanitarian law, including the denial of humanitarian access. European Union commended the work of the Commission of Inquiry and urged Syria to provide full unimpeded access to the Commission. Airstrikes on Khan Shaykhun were condemned, and it was reiterated that the criminal cases should be referred to the International Criminal Court. The European Union continued to provide full diplomatic and humanitarian support. Liechtenstein reiterated its strong support for the mandate of the Commission of Inquiry, noting some positive developments, such as some States undertaking criminal proceedings in their national courts on the basis of universal jurisdiction. How would the Commission coordinate and exchange information with the international, impartial and independent mechanism?
Kuwait thanked the Commission of Inquiry for its report. Unfortunately a number of serious human rights violations had been documented in Syria. Kuwait called on all parties to bring an end to all the suffering and was particularly concerned about the fate of children in this context. Poland thanked the members of the Commission for drawing attention to the persistent attacks on members of religious minorities and their places of worship, especially the Christian, Shia, Sunni, Alawite, Yezidi and other religious minorities. All parties to the conflict had failed to comply with obligations under international law. Israel said the Commission’s report reaffirmed what had already been known about the Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons against its own people. It invited the Commission to look into the matter of thousands of Shia mercenaries imported from Iran. Israel had been providing aid to the Syrian people since August 2016.
Germany condemned the vicious chemical attack by the Syrian regime that had taken place on April 4 in Khan Shaykhun, leaving more than 80 civilians dead. It commended the Commission of Inquiry for its work and reiterated its demand that the Commission be granted full and unrestricted access to Syria. There could be only a political solution. Russian Federation said the contents of the report confirmed that the Commission was not an independent structure and tended to lead the international community to confusion. The report had not said one word about the air strikes committed by the United States and its allies on al-Raqqa and some information was completely falsified. Faced with such flagrant hypocrisy, the Commission was working in the interest of its sponsors - States who were bent on changing the Government in power in Syria. United Arab Emirates welcomed the members of the Commission, stating that the report indicated that the human rights and humanitarian law situation in Syria were both deteriorating. While the international community was unable to unify its position, civilians were dying at the hands of all warring parties. The United Arab Emirates called for a wide and comprehensive political dialogue.
Canada condemned in the strongest terms all violations of international humanitarian law and human rights abuses in Syria. It was deeply concerned about the use of chemical weapons and forced displacement of civilians, calling on all parties to the conflict to provide full, safe and unhindered humanitarian access at all times. Brazil stressed that it was fundamental to place the interests of victims in Syria at the forefront, and it regretted that in the Council there was a tendency to fall prey to bias and vested interests, to partial narratives and political expediency. France regretted that the Syrian regime had continued its abusive behaviour, such as massive torture and summary executions, use of chemical weapons, use of siege and arbitrary detention, attacks on medical infrastructure, forced displacement of the population, and the blockade of humanitarian aid.
Greece was concerned about the continued extremism in Syria and the lack of protection of the civilian population, in particular of Christian communities. It noted that the Astana process could bring more permanent results and held a potential for an unhindered access to humanitarian aid. Belgium confirmed full support for the work of the Commission of Inquiry on Syria, and noted the Commission’s recommendation to ensure a comprehensive peace process in the country without any counterproductive attempts of pressure. Chile was dismayed by the continuation of the conflict in Syria and the human rights abuses taking place there. All actors should alleviate the suffering of victims and reach an effective and definitive cease fire. What was the number of children taken hostage?
Switzerland said human rights violations were still a reality in Syria today, expressing particular concern about enforced displacement, and calling for the situation to be referred to the International Criminal Court. The deadly war had to come to an end as soon as possible. Venezuela condemned the activities of terrorist groups which had been armed and trained to overthrow the legitimate government. Venezuela deplored international media groups’ manipulation of what was really happening on the ground in Syria. Netherlands said attacks on healthcare facilities might amount to war crimes; all those responsible should be held accountable for all crimes committed. The Commission of Inquiry was asked to elaborate on why new groups of civilians were being transferred into previously evacuated towns.
Japan said that as a nation that had suffered a sarin attack on the Tokyo subway, Japan strongly condemned the use of chemical weapons. Japan remained concerned about the humanitarian conditions in the besieged areas. Maldives condemned all violence and armed conflict, and the fact that schools, hospitals and aid workers were being attacked in Syria. The Geneva Convention had never been so thoroughly trampled; Maldives called for the international community to foster negotiations with all stakeholders. Cuba said it was increasingly urgent to end the conflict in Syria, which had led to suffering. Cuba rejected any attempt to undermine the independence of the Arab nation, and called for an end to all interventionist agendas.
Australia said appalling human rights abuses and violations of international humanitarian law continued to occur in Syria. Australia was deeply concerned about reports of deliberate attacks against civilians, including the abhorrent use of chemical weapons by regime forces. It deplored the horrific persecution of members of religious, ethnic and other minority groups at the hands of ISIL and other terrorist groups. United States called attention to the Commission’s thorough documentation on the use of siege warfare in Syria. The Syrian Government used besiegement to engineer geographic changes. The United States also deplored the Government’s continuous attacks on medical personnel and facilities. Czech Republic reiterated full support to the Commission’s mandate, and called on the Syrian authorities to grant the Commission immediate and unrestricted access throughout the country. It strongly condemned serious violations and abuses of human rights and all violations of international humanitarian law.
Iraq reiterated its support for peace in Syria, its territorial integrity and the right of Syrian people to live free from foreign interference. It called for unhindered access to humanitarian aid, and firmly condemned all attacks against civilians. Albania strongly condemned the perpetuation of crimes in Syria, including deliberate attacks on schools, and educational and medical facilities and personnel, and it reiterated its appeal to all actors involved in the conflict. Estonia condemned the use of siege and chemical weapons against civilians in Syria, and called on all involved parties to take every possible measure to protect the civilian population. It also said that all those responsible for violations must be held accountable. Qatar stated that the demographic change was a military strategy of the Syrian regime, which started with the siege of towns, indiscriminate shelling of civilian infrastructure, and displacement of population. All agreements should lead to a comprehensive cease fire and unhindered humanitarian access.
Remarks by the Commission of Inquiry
PAULO SÉRGIO PINHEIRO, Chairperson of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria, said that the Commission would continue to request access to Syria and to ask for the Government’s cooperation and open sharing of information. As for the accusations of politicisation, that was not at all accurate, as exhibited in the Commission’s reports. The Commission was the first one to document the human rights violations committed by armed groups in Syria. It was not selective; it just tried to investigate allegations by all parties and it only published the allegations that could be proven. Concrete evidence should be brought to the Commission. Children continued to be the major casualties in Syria, with their health, nutrition, mental and physical development being endangered. The Commission of Inquiry had held some preliminary discussions with the International, Independent and Impartial Mechanism. The use of chemical weapons was a violation of the right to life. In terms of new trends and practices, unfortunately, there was the use of suicide attacks and deliberate attacks against civilians, as well as the use of airstrikes and chemical weapons. The problem of missing persons and enforced disappearances in Syria was the greatest one seen since the Second World War.
Croatia said the international community should send a strong message condemning continued systematic and gross violations and abuses of human rights and international humanitarian law. All parties were called on to continue the Geneva process to find a peaceful political solution to the conflict. Spain called for respect for the most fundamental principles of international humanitarian law. The recently established mechanism for those responsible for the most serious crimes was essential, and was complementary to the work of the Commission of Inquiry. Egypt said the oral update reaffirmed that there were continued violations of rights by terrorist groups. The political solution was the only solution to achieve peace and security in Syria, and efforts were also needed to revive the concept of the national State far from any sectarian pressures.
Bahrain expressed concern about the humanitarian situation in Syria, condemning barbaric crimes committed in several areas of the country. The number of refugees during the six years of war was over 4 million, and the international community needed to find a unified solution. Slovenia said all parties in Syria needed to commit to peace and to finding a lasting political solution. It asked the Commission of Inquiry to elaborate on how often it ought to brief the General Assembly and the Security Council, and what concrete outcome it expected out of those briefings. Ecuador reiterated its condemnation of violations of international humanitarian law in Syria. While noting the reduction in hostilities in some provinces, it stressed that all perpetrators should be brought to justice regardless of their affiliation.
Italy voiced particular concern about the situation of the most vulnerable in Syria, such as women, children and internally displaced persons. Reconciliation would only be possible if accountability was ensured. Belarus noted that genuine peace in Syria could only be achieved by ceasing hostilities, welcoming the Astana process as a way to achieve that. The report of the Commission was biased and selective, avoiding the mention of crimes committed by terrorist groups fighting against the Syrian Government. Austria welcomed the fact that the Commission’s report had shed new light onto the tragic situation of religious minorities in Syria, such as the Shia, Ismaili, Druze and Christians. Accountability had to be at the heart of the international community’s joint efforts.
Morocco deplored the tragic consequences of the conflict in Syria, namely the suffering of the civilian population. It condemned the use of siege and the instrumentalisation of humanitarian aid, which had a heavy toll on children. China stated that the international community should increase the current momentum by upholding the dual track of peace talks on Syria in Astana and Geneva in order to protect the interests of the Syrian people, in respect of the country’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. Portugal reiterated its support for the mandate of the Commission of Inquiry and strongly condemned all gross, systemic and widespread violations of human rights in Syria committed by all sides in total impunity.
Democratic People’s Republic of Korea opposed selectivity and double standards in the field of human rights. The terrorist groups that had committed unacceptable human rights violations should be held accountable for the humanitarian crisis in Syria. The conflict should be resolved by the people and the Government of Syria themselves. Dialogue should be pursued with all parties. United Kingdom was appalled at the continuing widespread human rights violations and abuses, principally by the Syrian regime and terrorist groups. The Commission of Inquiry had found that the sarin attack on Khan Sheikhoun in April was carried out by the Syrian air force. There must be accountability for the repeated use of chemical weapons in Syria. Mexico deeply lamented that the Commission could not access Syria. The escalation in violence, including acts of torture in the country, was extremely worrying. Vulnerable groups should receive protection. Mexico was concerned about the escalation of attacks against medical facilities, places of worship and places protected by humanitarian law. Luxembourg urged the Syrian authorities to cooperate with the Commission and to allow access to the country. Luxembourg strongly condemned the organisation of sieges in civilian areas and deliberate attacks on aid convoys, which might constitute war crimes. Turkey said it was continuing its efforts to end the Syrian crisis through a political solution. The momentum achieved should not be lost and a political transition should be supported by all. While Turkey deeply deplored the attacks committed by the regime targeting civilians, it was observed that the crimes committed by the YPP and the YPG should be taken into account by the Commission. Botswana was concerned about the use of chemical weapons, the attacks on civilian objects and the obstruction of humanitarian access in Syria despite international condemnation. The use of siege warfare had resulted in the trapping of the most vulnerable in dire situations.
Romania said the conflict was affecting the stability and security of the region, and reiterated its appeal to all parties to protect civilians. Romania supported the process of finding a lasting political solution to the conflict on the basis of United Nations Security Council resolution 2254. Jordan thanked the Commission of Inquiry for the oral update and supported any effort that would lead to the restoration of stability in Syria. There was no military solution, and the continuation of the fighting would only lead to further victimization of the people of Syria. Hungary expressed concern about the threat represented by mines, which would kill even after armed conflicts ended, with most victims being children in times of peace. Hungary asked the Commission of Inquiry how they envisaged the development of their further activities, and in which field they were in the greatest need of assistance.
Iran said there was no military solution to the conflict in Syria, and any solution through a political process should include the people of Syria defining the solution. Iran called for an end to the conflict, and condemned any use of chemical weapons. Ireland said the continued violations of international humanitarian law and international human rights law in Syria underscored the need for legal accountability for all such crimes. Ireland supported the United Nations-led Geneva talks process, based on the 2012 Geneva communiqué and United Nations Security Council resolution 2254. Lithuania condemned the continued violations of international humanitarian and human rights law and noted that the indiscriminate use of chemical weapons, human shields and other illegal methods of warfare had made civilians the main victims of the conflict in Syria. Lithuania supported the work of the Commission of Inquiry which would ensure that perpetrators were brought to justice.
Algeria reiterated its constant stance that a political solution for the conflict in Syria was an imperative. More attention should be paid to the terrorist groups operating in Syria, which used civilians as human shields. It also drew attention to the heavy negative impact of the international sanctions against Syria. Saudi Arabia noted that the Syrian Government had continued to perpetrate brutal crimes and to violate international law. The latest such crimes were the use of sarin gas and the forced displacement of the population in order to change the demographic make-up of the country. New Zealand condemned in the strongest terms the atrocities reported by the Commission of Inquiry on Syria, especially the ongoing deliberate attacks by the Syrian Government on civilians. It called on all parties to allow much needed humanitarian access into besieged areas.
European Centre for Law and Justice drew attention to religiously motivated attacks on civilians in Syria by ISIS. The ISIS campaign to destroy religious minorities and to decimate their homelands and cultures was obviously genocidal. Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILF) noted that throughout the conflict in Syria, women’s rights activists had worked to deliver a wide range of life saving services. However, their contributions, experiences and concerns continued to be missing from international policy discussions, humanitarian response operations and peace negotiations. Alliance Defending Freedom highlighted the persecution of religious and ethnic minorities in Syria, which suffered discrimination of the magnitude of genocide. It called on the High Commissioner for Human Rights and the international community to bring that to the attention of the United Nations Security Council and to the International Court of Justice.
Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies regretted that in more than seven years, the horrors in Syria had continued unabated, including indiscriminate attacks against civilians resulting in hundreds of thousands of lives lost. Any political agreement must be anchored in international human rights law principles. United Nations Watch was gravely concerned by the report which found that the Syrian Government had used chemical weapons against its own people. It was noted that former member of the Commission Carla Del Ponte had resigned from the inquiry out of frustration with the United Nations failure to act. In large part, it was due to the power of Russia and China to veto any actions in the Security Council. Human Rights Watch was concerned by the use of chemical weapons against civilians. It was also concerned by the dangers posed to civilians because of the United States coalition offensive on Raqqa. Some airstrikes had resulted in significant destruction of civilian infrastructure and displaced many civilians. Torture, arbitrary detentions and extrajudicial killings continued with little attention of the international community.
Union of Arab Jurists said the Commission of Inquiry’s statements were partial and subjective and ignored the existence of armed groups. This politicization was outside the mandate of the Human Rights Council. The Commission based itself on false testimonies by persons which sought to undermine the State of Syria. Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression thanked the Commission of Inquiry and emphasised the need for the implementation of the recommendations of its report, in particular the paragraph on the use of chemical weapons by the Government of Syria. Twenty-five cases of chemical weapons use had been recorded and this was a violation of international humanitarian law.
PAULO SERGIO PINHEIRO, Chair of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic, in concluding remarks, responding to a question by Slovenia, said that the Security Council was regularly updated on the situation in Syria but not on the entire situation. The Commission believed that a chance to brief the Security Council on at least a quarterly basis would be positive. With such brief steps, more progress would be made. The Commission was currently investigating the violation of human rights of children, forced displacement and restriction of movement, association and expression of children in YPG (Kurdish Militia) -run camps. The Commission appealed to Member States who had witnesses or victims of crimes, to share information with the Commission on a confidential basis. Forcible displacement had been categorized as a war crime in the report. He thanked all the Member States for the expression of general support of the work of the Commission.
CARLA DEL PONTE, Member of the Commission of Inquiry, and former Chief Prosecutor of two United Nations international criminal law tribunals, said that after more than five years of work, the Commission could still not obtain authorization from the Security Council to establish a tribunal for all the crimes committed in Syria. Today was the seventh year of crimes with total impunity. This was not acceptable. She thanked her colleagues in the Commission for their support and for the excellent work they had done and would continue to do, expecting justice. All called for justice. The international community needed to do something if justice was to be given to the victims. But in order to secure justice, the establishment of a tribunal was necessary.
For use of the information media; not an official record